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The 3 Most Common Causes of Low Desire (and how to deal with them)

If you are someone who is not experiencing as much sexual desire as you'd like, you are in good company. Let's look at some common causes and corresponding treatment approaches.


1. Unrealistic Expectations.


Before you go diagnosing yourself with a sexual dysfunction or spiraling down the something-is-wrong-me you rabbit hole, let's unpack the cultural messaging that desire should be intense, passionate, and immediate.



Many people do experience this type of spontaneous desire at some point in their lives, such as during the honeymoon phase of a relationship. When you first get together with someone, your brain is flooded with all kinds of yummy hormones like dopamine and norepinephrine. But it is inevitable that this chemical boost will subside (usually after 6-12 months) and you exit the can't-keep-your-hands-off-each other phase in a relationship. In other words, if you are no longer craving sex with your partner like you used to, that is NORMAL. Desire fluctuations are NORMAL.

While some people do tend towards the spontaneous desire we see in the movies even after the honey-moon phase of a relationship is over, many people, especially vulva-owners, tend towards responsive desire instead. With this desire style, desire for sex isn't going to just come out of thin air. People with responsive desire need to experience physical arousal first, for instance by reading erotica or engaging in sensual touching. Desire starts to build as an experience is unfolding, so you need to create opportunities where desire can build. Many people mistake responsive desire for low libido. But responsive desire is not a lack of sex drive! It's just a lack of spontaneous sex drive! And it is healthy and normal!

So stop expecting desire to appear out of thin air and start creating opportunities to see if desire can build (either alone or with a partner). You need to find what works for you, but here are some examples:

  • Mindfully explore sensual touch, either with yourself or with your partner, without any expectations

  • Read or listen to erotica

  • Set up a date night and put on an outfit that you feel really sexy in

  • Watch ethical porn


2. Stress


For most people, if there are things about your environment or about your internal state that your brain interprets as threatening, the sexual inhibition system in the brain will get activated. The sexual inhibition system is like brakes on a car. When you activate the sexual inhibition system you are slamming on the breaks.

Some examples of stressors that might hit the breaks are work stress, financial stress, relationship difficulties, a negative body image, generalized anxiety disorder, other mood disorders, feeling emotionally disconnected from your partner(s), a sock on the floor, dirty sheets, pressure, feeling like something is wrong with you, etc…

There will always be stressors in your life and there will always be stress. So how do you ignite desire amidst stress? One way is to schedule intimacy time. I know, I know, this is not super sexy, it's not what you see in the media, but guess what? If you just wait for it to happen in the midst of your busy, stressful life, you are setting yourself up for failure. There are so many great things in life that we plan and schedule - we plan vacations, we plan parties, we plan weddings -- why not plan for physical intimacy? (I say physical intimacy and not sex because planned sex can feel like a lot of pressure).



When you schedue intimacy sessions you give yourself time to create a context that is as stress-free as possible. You can send the kids on sleepovers, change your sheets, make sure to respond to all your emails, finish your work to-do's, and give yourself time and space to compartmentalize your stress and get in the mood.

Of course, some stressors are harder to remove than others. You might be plagued with negative beliefs about yourself and your body that follow you wherever you go, you might be suffering from mental illness, OR maybe sex itself has become a stressor. If sex itself feels threatening (perhaps due to trauma history or pressure), it might be time to take sex off the table for a while and focus on other ways to be intimate (with yourself or with your partner) that do feel good. It will be helpful to work with an individual or couple's therapist to heal that part of your brain that associate sex with danger.


3. Medications

Any medication that decreases dopamine, increases serotonin, or increases opioids can interfere with sexual excitation pathways in the brain. Some examples are anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressant medications. Medications that affect hormone levels can also sometimes have an effect. For example, the birth control pill has been shown to decrease sexual desire for about 1/3rd of people. (It has also been shown to increase sexual desire for 1/5th of people).

If your decrease in sexual desire directly correlates with the start of a new medication, talk with your medical provider.



Whatever is causing your low desire, there are absolutely ways to address it! Pleasure is your birthright and you are capable of feeling sexy and fulfilled.





Sources


Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are. Simon & Schuster.

YouTube, YouTube, 15 Nov. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J03NFx0Nji8&t=14s. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

YouTube, YouTube, 18 July 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvVykirHww4&t=2673s. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

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